A Playlist of Songs to Get You Through Hard Times: Stream 20 Tracks from the Alan Lomax Collection

There’s an argu­ment to be made that folk music is always polit­i­cal, in a broad sense. It is music made by ordi­nary peo­ple strug­gling against over­whelm­ing forces: nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, oppres­sive gov­ern­ments, cor­rupt boss­es, job loss, the pains of mar­riage and illic­it rela­tion­ships… and epi­dem­ic infec­tious dis­eases. It’s music of con­so­la­tion and resilience. Folk music helps us navigate—as the title of a 20-song col­lec­tion of Alan Lomax’s record­ings new­ly released on Band­camp puts it—“hard times: up, over and through.”

At least,  the fact that we know of and can hear so much folk music from around the world has a good deal to do with polit­i­cal deci­sions made, for exam­ple, in the U.S., where Lomax began work­ing with his folk­lorist father John, col­lect­ing music and inter­views for the Library of Congress’s Archive of Amer­i­can Folk Song. This work was fund­ed on the premise that con­serv­ing the voice of the peo­ple had val­ue inde­pen­dent of its prof­itabil­i­ty.

But prof­itable it was: first cre­ative­ly, as Lomax’s record­ings inspired the Amer­i­can and British folk revivals of the mid-20th cen­tu­ry: then finan­cial­ly, as folk and folk-rock artists sold mil­lions of records. Giv­en the tenor of those times, it’s no won­der folk became main­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Civ­il Rights, labor, and anti-war move­ments. Yet as folk­lorists like Lomax showed, even after the Con­gres­sion­al fund­ing end­ed, folk songs from around the world have sto­ries to tell that we may nev­er have heard oth­er­wise.

A 20-track selec­tion of those songs, dat­ing between 1936 and 1982, can hard­ly be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the mas­sive trove of record­ings Lomax col­lect­ed. It does show, a press release notes, “an enor­mous range of geo­graph­i­cal and styl­is­tic diver­si­ty across 50 years,” with artists rang­ing from “leg­ends of Amer­i­can ver­nac­u­lar music—Bessie Jones, Skip James, and Dock Bog­gs among them—to rur­al Ital­ian, Span­ish, and Scot­tish singers.” This music offers, “in these try­ing times, com­fort diver­sion, and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive.”

Such per­spec­tive is crit­i­cal when the world seems to be falling apart. The strug­gles of “folk”—wherever they may be in the world—are inter­con­nect­ed and ongo­ing. Hear­ing how peo­ple respond­ed to dis­as­ter, both per­son­al and col­lec­tive, in decades past pro­vides a sense of con­ti­nu­ity. Things have been very bad before, and peo­ple have had rea­son to lament. To declare that “Mon­ey is King,” as a track by The Growl­ing Tiger tells us. To won­der plain­tive­ly, as Har­ry Cox does, “What will become of England/if things go on this way?”

But folk singers have also had rea­sons for joy, in the best and the bleak­est of times, and joy is also a kind of pol­i­tics, a show of strength in the face of what Rev. Pearly Brown plain­ly calls “A Mean Old World.” Stream the col­lec­tion, which includes six pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased tracks, above, and buy indi­vid­ual tracks or the full dig­i­tal album for $5 at Band­camp.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Alan Lomax’s Mas­sive Music Archive Is Online: Fea­tures 17,000 His­toric Blues & Folk Record­ings

Hear 17,000+ Tra­di­tion­al Folk & Blues Songs Curat­ed by the Great Musi­col­o­gist Alan Lomax

Leg­endary Folk­lorist Alan Lomax: ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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